The 606: The Trailhead to a Larger Trend

By Linda Seggelke

After more than a decade of planning, $95 million in funding and one name change, the City of Chicago cut the ribbon recently on the 606, a new elevated park that stretches for nearly three miles on the city’s northwest side. Formerly known as the Bloomingdale Trail, the park makes use of a disused rail line that stretches above Bloomingdale Avenue, connecting Bucktown, Wicker Park, Logan Square and Humboldt Park.

606-1Some work is still underway and when complete, the 606 will be part of a system that includes six ground-level parks, a wheel-friendly event plaza, an observatory and other amenities. “The 606 is a transformative project that has turned an old railroad embankment into a recreational trail and park system on the northwest side, a major investment in green space that will benefit neighborhood residents and people throughout Chicago,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The Chicago & Pacific Railroad laid tracks down the middle of Bloomingdale Avenue in the 1870s to serve industrial uses on the north side, including bicycle, furniture and candy manufacturers. Concerns over pedestrian casualties in rail rights-of-way led to a City Council ordinance requiring that they be raised. The Bloomingdale line was one of the last to finish this effort, with work finishing in 1915. Incredibly, trains continued service throughout the construction.

Most of the area had been converted to residential by the 1990s, and rail service ceased. In the following decades, the raised rail line became a surreptitious walking trail. Nature had overtaken the ties, gravel and steel and the height of the embankment offered great views of the city skyline.

After years of grass-roots efforts, open space plans and public meetings, the city broke ground in 2013 to give the Bloomingdale Trail official status. Funding came via a mix of federal and local sources, with nearly half of the project costs coming from private donations under the leadership of the Trust for Public Land.

“This innovative and unique trail will not only serve the neighborhoods it touches, but offers the opportunity for other residents and visitors to explore the diverse and culturally rich communities that surround it,” said Michael Kelly, Chicago Park District Superintendent and CEO.

606-3The 606 is another extension of the Chicago Park District over the past few years, and a great amenity to the more than 80,000 people that live within a ten-minute walk of it. Refurbishing the rail infrastructure not only gives these residents parkland they might not have been otherwise able to obtain, it transformed a piece of city blight into urban amenity. “The legacy of the former Bloomingdale Trail rail line continues today with its reinvention, as a multiple-purpose trail encouraging fitness and recreation,” Kelly said.

The 606 is not without precedent. New York City’s High Line opened in 2009 on Manhattan’s Lower West Side, though expansions continue even this year. It has been a colossal success, spurring development at adjacent properties and drawing roughly five million visitors annually. For comparison, Navy Pier is Chicago’s largest tourist attraction with 8.9 million visits a year. The High Line was itself inspired by the Promenade plantée in Paris, which opened in 1993.

Transforming derelict, elevated railways from urban blight into public open space is a relatively new concept. However, the rails to trails movement has been going strong for decades, just usually at ground level. The Illinois Prairie Path, for example, runs for over 60 miles through Cook, DuPage and Kane Counties—almost entirely on former railroad right-of-way. The Rails to Trails Conservancy estimates that there are over 22,000 miles of converted railroad trails in the U.S.

606-2This latest trend in the rails to trails movement—turning raised rail lines into pedestrian and bike paths—is set to expand in Chicago. Mayor Emanuel submitted an ordinance last September to acquire a 1.7-mile stretch of track embankment from the Norfolk Southern Corporation. The railway runs just north of 59th Street in Englewood, a neighborhood that could greatly benefit from a public infrastructure boost like this.

Like the 606, the Weber Spur Trail is also 2.7 miles long, though any thoughts of its transformation into a city park are only on the drawing table at this point. It is an attractive prospect, however, as the former rail line intermittently runs at and above grade and intersects with many existing rails and parks. “This is a great project that’s going to provide us with some wonderful recreational opportunities for our entire community,” said Ald. Margaret Laurino (39th) at a recent public meeting to gather the community’s input.

It would take years of planning and construction before the Weber Spur, or any other abandoned rail lines, are at the level of the 606. Hopefully the trend continues, however, and Chicago’s miles of unused infrastructure can have a second life as vibrant parkland, unifying residents with the rest of their city.

Photos: John Zacherle

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